Through the flames

One year ago, fire tore through an equine center near San Diego, killing 46 horses. This filly, and her trainer, are helping each other heal.
Lovely Finish stands in her stable at Del Mar Racetrack. The horse and her trainer, Joe Herrick, were severely burned while trying to flee the Lilac Fire last year near San Diego.
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Photos by Sandy Huffaker

The days were bad enough. He woke around dawn, a hazard of both his job and the pain. On the “good” days, the nurses just changed his bandages, an annoying half-hour ordeal; on the bad ones, the doctors scrubbed his wounds, a process so painful it required a steady IV of painkillers. Otherwise he spent the days waiting for visitors to bring food, anything but hospital food, and to bring updates about Lovely’s condition. Through it all, he did his least favorite thing, the thing he’d spent his life trying to avoid. He sat.

The days were bad enough, but it was nighttime that Joe Herrick thought might kill him. The visitors went home. The hospital went quiet. Joe ran out of things to keep him from falling asleep. So he fell, and there he was again, night after night, trapped in some jumbled, hazy replay of the worst day of his life, a vivid hellscape of broken horse bones, smoking flesh and falling fireballs.

Lovely Finish stands in her stable at Del Mar Racetrack. The horse and her trainer, Joe Herrick, were severely burned while trying to flee the Lilac Fire last year near San Diego.

Which is why, after 12 nights in the hospital, Joe decided he’d had enough. When he first arrived, doctors told him he’d be there for months. Later, when they determined that he somehow didn’t need skin grafts, they told him he’d be there for weeks. Now, after just 12 days, he was telling them: I’m done.

His kids came that morning, as they did every morning. But instead of feeding and comforting him, they packed his things and got a tutorial on how to treat his wounds. They figured they would drive him home, where his dog and his horses might help fend off the nightmares. But Joe had another idea.

Herrick washes down after working with Lovely Finish at Del Mar. In the Lilac Fire, the trainer suffered second- and third-degree burns over 23 percent of his body. (Sandy Huffaker for The Washington Post)

The day of the Lilac Fire — Dec. 7, 2017 — started like most, with Joe lifting his lanky 5-foot-11 frame out of bed around 5 a.m. He always liked the quiet out there, on his ranch in the scrubby hills north of San Diego, and it was as quiet as ever. His kids were grown and gone. His ex-wife had moved out a couple years before. It was just Joe and his yellow lab, Bingo, now. They checked on Joe’s dozen horses, fed the koi, climbed into the truck and drove toward the lightening horizon.

They arrived around 6:30. The San Luis Rey Training Center is a 250-acre equine playground in Bonsall, Calif., an hour north of San Diego. It’s home to trainers big and small who work their horses before shipping them to Del Mar, Santa Anita and tracks all over the country. That includes the likes of Peter Miller, a top-12 trainer whose horses win millions every year. And it includes the likes of Joe Herrick, a former motel operator whose horses win tens of thousands.

There were 450 horses on the grounds that day. Joe trained seven of them. He owned part or all of four. Some, like the powerful gelding Call Me First, hadn’t done much on the track but looked promising. Another bulky gelding, Ral Rue, had helped keep the lights on, finishing second several times and racking up $40,000 in career earnings. But it was a filly named Lovely Finish who had recently captured Joe’s heart.

He’d picked her out at a yearling sale the year before. She had a salt-and-pepper coat, a short black mane,and small, dark eyes set near the top of her missile-shaped forehead. She’d run her first race a month earlier, taking second at Del Mar, and Joe had high hopes for her next race, which was only a few days away. She nickered like always when she saw Joe walking toward her stall that morning, knowing it was time for their walk along the edge of the palm-studded grounds. The grooms called her Joe’s “girlfriend.”

Fire was on Joe’s mind as they walked. It was fire season in Southern California, and every fire season seemed to trump the previous. It was on his mind because he had horses, and when you have horses, fire season comes with a special brand of anxiety over how you will move them if the fires come. Other the years, Joe had used his trailer to evacuate too many horses to count.

There were no fires threatening the training center that morning, but they were raging all over the state. The Tubbs Fire, up in wine country, had burned through most of October, destroying thousands of homes and killing 22 people. The Thomas Fire had been torching the hills around Santa Barbara for a few days. San Diego had received almost no rain since Oct. 1, and Joe could feel those warm Santa Ana winds on his face as he put Lovely through her paces.

Firefighters are shown battling the Lilac Fire in Bonsall, Calif. on Dec. 7, 2017. There had been no fires threatening the training center that morning, but they were raging all over the state. (Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty Images)

They were done by midmorning. Joe said goodbye to Lovely, packed up Bingo, and was driving home around 11:30 when a firetruck passed. Joe silently urged it not to turn toward the San Luis Rey, but it ignored his plea. Joe flipped a U-turn and followed it onto the grounds.

A car had ignited a brush fire near Lilac Road. Joe could see plumes of smoke creeping over the hilltops to the east. He called his ex and asked her to have her horse trailers on standby, in case they needed to evacuate, and he began soaking his barn with water. He hoped the firefighters could hold the fire off, or redirect it. But soon they saw a thick cloud of black smoke rising from a nearby canyon. The fire was on them.

Bonsall is a horse town. There were able-bodied, trailer-toting horsemen in every direction, and they all kept in close contact during fire season. There were even specific horse-evacuation pages on Facebook. But the blaze was moving so quickly that fire officials were already closing roads and evacuating people. Before the trainers could even start loading horses, a San Diego County Sheriff’s truck roared through the grounds, kicking dust into the wind. “Everyone’s gotta go,” the deputy bellowed.

A lot of them listened. A lot didn’t. Joe continued hosing down his barn, still hoping to truck his horses to safety. But Chuck Jenkins, the vet working that day, started spreading word that it was time to turn the horses loose.

“We’ve got millions of dollars’ worth of horses here!” one of the trainers said.

“You’re going to have millions of dollars’ worth of dead horses!” Jenkins told him.

For Joe, it was the ultimate last resort. He’s at once a nurturing and controlling horseman, a man who always puts the animal first and trusts no one to care for his horses more than he trusts himself. He even breaks most of his own yearlings, a physically demanding, patience-testing task usually reserved for younger cowboys. Now he was faced with simply opening his stall doors and letting his runners run.

The winds kicked up. An orange-tinted fog fell over the training center. Embers must have found their way into the palm leaves, because those iconic trees lit up like tiki torches. Joe and the others hurried to get halters onto their horses before cutting them loose, so they could be caught and identified later.

He pulled on Lovely Finish’s halter and led her out of her stall. Then, from behind, a blast of heat. A burning palm frond, falling from a brittle treetop some 80 feet in the air, walloped Joe and Lovely, devouring their flesh. She bolted into open space, where horses were stampeding in circles of confusion. Many of them got so scared that they turned back for their barns. Their barns were security. Their barns were also filled with wood chips and dry alfalfa.

Terrified horses gallop from San Luis Rey Training Center during the Lilac Fire. Many of them got so scared that they turned back for their barns, which represented security. (Paul Sisson/San Diego Union-Tribune/Associated Press)

Joe found a hose and doused his smoldering flesh. Then he took off running, hoping to chase down Lovely and keep her safe. She saw him and peeled off from the stampede. He gripped her halter, pulled her into a barn, and built a fortress of sawhorses to protect them from the mayhem. Then he found Jenkins, the vet, and asked him to dose the filly with pain meds and a tranquilizer.

Jenkins urged Joe to get in the ambulance that had blared onto the grounds, but Joe brushed the doc off, desperate to make sure Lovely made it out alive. The insistent firefighters, together with the mounting pain, were more persuasive. Joe climbed into the ambulance, where medics shot him up with morphine.

They shipped him to the burn unit at UC San Diego. His face was swollen and hot and specked with burns; his arms were burned crisp. The official diagnosis: second- and third-degree burns over 23 percent of his body. Still, he managed to work the phones, imploring family and friends to find Bingo and his horses.

Back at the training center, firefighters controlled the flames. Jenkins started treating the horses that had been turned loose. He euthanized a few that broke legs during the stampede. A few lay dead on the track, having basically run themselves to death amid the hazy chaos. But most of the horses survived, finding refuge elsewhere on the grounds. Volunteer horsemen pulled in and started trucking them to nearby ranches and race tracks, to be treated and cared for until their owners could reclaim them.

But as night fell, Joe’s horses were nowhere to be found. As it turned out, two barns — the two closest to the row of burning palm trees — had been hit first and fast by the fire. When workers dug through the charred remains of those barns, they found 46 dead horses. Six of them were Joe’s.

Lovely Finish stands in her stable at Del Mar. After the fire, which killed 46 horses, she was puffy and burned and sullen, and initially the doctors feared she might lose her eyesight. (Sandy Huffaker for The Washington Post)

In the hospital, Joe kept asking about his horses, and his family and friends kept changing the subject. His blood pressure was 225/175 — “I should have had a stroke,” he says — and they worried that the truth would send him careening further into his pit of depression. But the news was spreading across Facebook and text chains, and there was no hope of stopping it. When he finally learned the truth, Joe lay in bed and wept.

The next 12 days proceeded in that grueling cycle: long, painful days followed by the harrowing dark. The only highlights came whenever a visitor arrived with an update on Lovely. Some Good Samaritan had apparently rescued the filly from the training center and trucked her to Del Mar.

Joe’s daughter and ex-wife had then transported her to a nearby animal hospital. She was puffy and burned and sullen, and initially the doctors thought she might lose her eyesight. But within a few days, the swelling started to go down, her vision came back, and her demeanor and appetite improved. Her visitors were even able to get her out of her stall and walk her. They arrived in Joe’s hospital room with pictures and peppy updates for Joe: “She’s ravenous for the carrots!” “She’s got a lot of life in her!”

Then the visitors left, and night fell, and Joe drifted off toward his animated hell. So on that 12th day, he checked himself out, and he told his kids to drive him not home but to the animal hospital. Within the hour, they were all standing in a wash rack, watching Joe gently lay his hands on Lovely’s coat. She nickered at the sight of him.

A few days later, they trucked the filly back to Joe’s house. She needed to move. They both did. Lovely Finish was still only two, so her energy reserves could either be spent walking a track or wreaking havoc in her stall. Joe was 55 and in pain, but he’d never been one for sitting. Before the fire, he played at least four soccer games a week, most of them with guys half his age. He knew that working Lovely would help him get back in soccer shape. The problem was, there was nowhere to work her. He and his ex-wife, Julie, had divided the ranch in two when they split up. Joe lost his riding arena in the divorce.

They’d barely talked since then. But Julie barreled back into Joe’s life the moment he called from the ambulance. She hunted down Bingo, who’d been found in Joe’s truck. She helped find Lovely. She joined the rotating cast of visitors at the hospital room. And when Joe called and asked if he could use the arena on her side of the property, she agreed.

Herrick walks with Lovely Finish during warm-ups at Del Mar. The horse was skittish during their old morning walk back at the old barns, but once on the track, she cruised. (Sandy Huffaker for The Washington Post)

Joe spent the next several weeks trying to hand-walk Lovely, twice or even three times a day. His charred wrist made it difficult. So did her ornery demeanor. Lovely, who weighed almost 1,200 pounds, reared and bucked as Joe, who weighs about 150, tried to keep her steady. When walking wasn’t enough, he started jogging alongside her. Along with his probably premature return to the soccer field, the jogging helped Joe get back in shape. It also helped exhaust his body to the point that he started sleeping right through the nightmares.

They went on like this through winter, working their way from walking to jogging, jogging to galloping, galloping to sprinting. In April, about four months after the fire, word came that San Luis Rey was ready to reopen. Joe pulled his trailer onto the grounds and walked Lovely toward the new barns, which had rubber floors and would eventually be equipped with fire sprinklers. Joe knew there wasn’t much they could do about future fires. He knew the region’s development, extreme weather, and those towers of dry alfalfa conspired to make rural San Diego horse farms about as vulnerable as anywhere. But he also knew that surviving wildfires was all about creating “defensible spaces.” Sprinklers would definitely help.

After settling in, Joe took Lovely on their old morning walk, near their old barns, which seemed to make her a little skittish. But when he turned her loose on the track, she cruised.

Herrick with Lovely Finish. She made her return to racing at Los Alamitos, south of Los Angeles, ridden by Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Stewart Elliott. She finished third in her first race back. (Sandy Huffaker for The Washington Post)

On the day of the race, Lovely was her usual self: calm in the saddling paddock, a little cranky when the jockey mounted her, and all business as she trotted onto the track.

It was late September, more than 10 months since the fire. Joe had hoped to race her earlier, but a nagging foot injury kept setting her back. He also worried about whether the smoke had done any damage to her lungs. But by fall, he was confident she could race again. He found her a slot at Los Alamitos, the palm-studded racetrack in the endless suburbs south of Los Angeles.

Joe found his way to his spot near the finish line. Down the track, a crowd of family and friends, who’d been closely following the duo’s recovery, swarmed the rail. They watched as Lovely settled into the starting gate, reassured by the steady hands of a Kentucky Derby-winning jockey named Stewart Elliott, who Joe had sought out for Lovely’s first race back.

The gates flew. Lovely got trapped on the inside, a notoriously slow lane at Los Al. The outside horses breezed past her, and by the final turn she was running sixth, several lengths behind the leader. As they moved into the final stretch, Joe couldn’t help but begin telling himself that it was an accomplishment just to be racing again.

That’s when it happened. Elliott, the jockey, started working her hard, as if he realized she was ready to race. And there she went, cruising into fifth, then fourth, and then, just before the finish line, into the money.

In time, Joe would cherish the fact that Lovely finished third in her first race back. She would do the same in her second race back, too. Later, as the first anniversary of the fire approached, he made plans to enter Lovely in even more competitive races, and he started imagining her future as a broodmare.

But right then, as the announcer called her name, Joe just stepped onto the track and found his filly. After most races, it’s the groom who escorts a horse back to her stall to recover. That day, though, Joe took Lovely by the halter and walked her home himself.

Correction: A previous version of this article said the Thomas Fire had been raging for weeks on Dec. 7. Actually, the Thomas Fire started on Dec. 4.

Credits: Story by Joe Tone. Photos by Sandy Huffaker. Designed by Virginia Singarayar. Photo Editing by Thomas Simonetti.